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When it comes to sedentary behaviour (waking time spent at rest in a sitting or reclined position), Canadian adults received a grade of F in the 2021 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Adults. Not surprisingly, more than 60% of Canadians reported spending more time using the internet and watching TV during the pandemic. Take an “active break” every 30 minutes during periods of inactivity and see how you feel both physically and mentally.

This blog recaps the first webinar in the 4‑part mini-series Engaging Girls and Women in Sport. SIRC and Canadian Women & Sport co-hosted the mini-series, which you can access or learn more about by visiting our SIRC Expert Webinars page.

Diverse girls wearing face masks giving an elbow bump.The COVID‑19 pandemic continues to disrupt the sport in Canada and around the world. While temporary closures were predictable during a global pandemic, their lasting impact is cause for concern. For example, research shows that youth sport participation is decreasing, especially among girls. Even before COVID‑19, as many as 62% of Canadian girls weren’t involved in any sports.

To better understand the impact of the pandemic on Canadian girls’ sport participation, Canadian Women & Sport partnered with E-Alliance and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities. They surveyed girls aged 13 to 18 and parents of girls aged 6 to 12. Their report, COVID Alert: Pandemic Impact on Girls in Sport, reveals that 1 in 4 Canadian girls (6 to 18 years) who participated in sport at least weekly prior to COVID‑19 aren’t committed to returning to sport once COVID‑19 restrictions disappear.

The first webinar in the mini-series was Getting Girls Back in the Game. The webinar involved 3 panelists, including a sport researcher and community sport leaders. They discussed the research behind the report and how these trends are playing out on the ground in Canada. This blog post highlights key takeaways from their discussion, including common issues and barriers affecting girls’ sport participation and potential solutions for getting girls back in the game.

Webinar panelists included:

Common issues and barriers affecting girls’ sport participation

girl soccer players on a sidelineThe panelists kicked off the webinar by reflecting on how the findings of the COVID Alert report mirrored what they saw in their own communities. Paul noted that the effect of the pandemic on girls’ participation in her water polo club varied. Girls in the high performance group were less interested in coming back to training than younger athletes, possibly reflecting a shift in priorities. Pegoraro pointed out that access to sports, through schools for younger girls and community-based organizations for older athletes, may account for differences in participation by age group. Meanwhile, Bradley confirmed that some of her younger soccer players experienced poor mental health and limited opportunities for social connection during the pandemic.

According to the panelists, cost has been the most common barriers to girls’ sport participation during the pandemic. Financial barriers include a loss of funding opportunities for community-run sports clubs and families’ concerns over their ability to cover participation fees, especially with uncertainties about pandemic closures.

Another barrier is the lack of social connection. While having peers who play sports helps create positive environments for girls and increases girls’ engagement, the opposite is also true. “Missing friends was key,” according to Pegoraro. “That social connectedness is a lever point of trying to figure out what we can learn to bring groups back together.”

Finally, spending time away from sports can change girls’ interest in participation, commitment to training or confidence in their athletic ability.

Getting girls back in the game

Girls performing martial arts in a karate studioReflecting on these barriers, the panelists shared their recommendations on how sports leaders can help get girls back in the game:

  1. Collaborate across sports

Conventional approaches encourage girls to choose between sports. Instead, Bradley suggested collaboration across sports and between clubs. Teaming up with other organizations to share best practices can help encourage girls to stay in sports.

“I think leaning into organizations around you, in sharing resources, [is] important. Pre-pandemic, a lot of us held cards to our heart and were not as open about struggles. The pandemic has showed us all that it’s time to open up and work together.”

Melanie Bradley
  1. Encourage athletes to try new roles

One way to reignite girls’ interest in sport is through new roles, which can include coaching, refereeing or decision-making roles. A great way to keep girls in sport is to encourage them to stay involved in ways that speak to their interests.

“We did lose a fair number of our high school girls. We lost them as athletes. However, as a club we tried to connect to them to retrain them as officials or coaches. We lost athletes through the pandemic, but we didn’t necessarily lose all of those girls from sport.”

Raine Paul
  1. Create safe spaces allowing girls to return at their own pace

The pandemic has negatively affected the physical and mental health of many Canadians. That’s why it’s vital to create safe spaces to allow girls to return to sport at their own pace. Flexible schedules with varying commitment levels can help athletes avoid physical injury. Meanwhile, being mindful of the potential changes to athletes’ confidence levels as a result of spending time away from sports, can help address the mental challenges.

“We also have to be aware that girls are going to be super self-conscious as they come out of bedrooms and houses and lack of activity. And so, thinking of ways that you can bring them back into sport environments in a way where they’re less self conscious about their body [is important].”

Ann Pegoraro

Future directions

Field hockey female players run with ball in attackWrapping up the discussion, the panelists identified several success factors that can help encourage girls’ sports participation. Policy changes were the first item on the panelists’ list. Pegoraro noted that government policy can help to drive funding for future sports opportunities for girls and women and break down existing financial barriers.

The second success factor was building positive social influences. This can be done by having positive role models among girls and women, encouraging social connection through “buddy systems” within clubs and organizations, and supporting parents in getting active and understanding the importance of sports for children.

The final factor was ensuring that clubs and organizations address safety concerns in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They must also follow recommended health guidelines to help encourage more girls to get back in the game.

Although it isn’t clear yet when the pandemic will end or what its lasting impacts may be, we can take steps to reduce its effects on youth sport participation, especially among girls. Understanding barriers to sport participation, considering creative ways of supporting girls’ return to sport, and identifying ways to ensure continued sport participation in the future can help us all work together to get girls back in the game.

About the panelists

Find out more about the webinar panelists, access a recording of the Getting Girls Back in the Game webinar or learn more about the Engaging Girls and Women in Sport mini-series by visiting the SIRC Expert Webinars page.

About Canadian Women & Sport

Canadian Women & Sport is dedicated to creating an equitable and inclusive Canadian sport and physical activity system that empowers girls and women. The aim is to empower them as active participants and leaders, within and through sport. With a focus on systemic change, we partner with sport organizations, governments, and leaders to challenge the status quo and build better sport through gender equity.

COVID-19 has significant health impacts, making it a concern for elite athletes. Encouragingly, a study from the United Kingdom shows that most national team athletes with COVID-19 only experienced mild illness. But it’s not the same for everyone. Athletes with symptoms in the lower respiratory tract, such as chest pain, were more likely to have a delayed return-to-play.

After 2020 surprised us all with a global pandemic, many of us looked to 2021 with hope for a gradual return to our pre-pandemic “normal.” And with the widespread rollout and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines across the country, the activities that we put on hold as the pandemic unfolded, from social gatherings to travel, began to make a comeback.

Look no further than the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which brought together nearly 15,000 athletes in the summer of 2021, for an example of how the sporting world has learned to adapt and thrive in the age of COVID-19. The Government of Canada also committed $170 million in funding to support the recovery of the sport sector in its 2021 Budget, further reinforcing sport’s crucial role in our country’s broader social and economic recovery.

 And while we continue to face challenges, from new COVID-19 variants to climate disasters, SIRC continues to provide credible, responsive and relevant content to meet the needs of the Canadian sport sector. For a closer look at how SIRC embraced the “new normal” in 2021, cruise through our top content in SIRC’s 2021 year in review.

January

Mature woman wearing swim goggles at swimming pool. Fit active senior woman enjoying retirement standing in swimming pool and looking at camera. Happy senior healthy old woman enjoying active lifestyle.The 2021 Winter SIRCuit put a spotlight on Masters Athletes, an important call to action for creating better sport experiences for adults that are “beyond the typical age of peak performance.” Masters Athletes (Mas) can often be an after-thought in sport organizations, but this article speaks to the tremendous opportunity and value in reversing that trend.

February

SIRC produced an important blog in collaboration with the BIPOC Varsity Association at the University of Toronto: Tackling racism on campus. It includes an innovative approach to combatting racism within universities and colleges.

February also featured SIRC’s 2021 Concussion in Sport Symposium. The symposium focused on key research topics emerging in the concussion field, such as sex- and gender-related differences in concussions. It also featured key leaders in sport, such as Canadian Men’s National Team Head Coach, John Herdman.

March

SIRC launched Mom’s Got Game, an awareness campaign supporting and celebrating moms’ participation in sport and physical activity. In collaboration with Bell Media and other partners, we brought attention to the latest research and evidence. We also called on moms to share their stories of success and challenges, and the results were inspiring.

April

SIRC’s webinars continued into April, with a new mini-series focused on program evaluation skills. The accompanying resource helps sport organizations with all aspects of evaluation, from start to finish: Toolkit: Mastering the Art of Evaluation.

The spring 2021 SIRCuit was published, including an important article focused on addressing climate change in the Canadian sport sector.

May

LGBTQ2S+ Pride Flag with shadows of people in the backgroundOn International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT)—a worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities marked annually on May 17th—SIRC published an educational piece in collaboration with Egale Canada.

June

In June, SIRC published a unique blog diving into a new model of co-participation for women and girls in sport called “Swim Together.” The program was developed in collaboration between University of Waterloo researchers, the Township of Woolwich, Ontario, and the Woolwich Wave Swim Team.

July

The Tokyo Olympics was one of Team Canada’s most successful Summer Games ever. Our country’s 24 medals were good for 11th overall and was the second-highest total in Canada’s history at the Summer Olympics.

SIRC published a Special Edition SIRCuit in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, including four articles that showcase Canadian leadership at the highest level of sport with regards to safe sport and concussion. The spirit of Canadian athletes shines through this article, Can you hear me now? The emergence of the athlete voice in Canadian Sport.

August

Canada’s Paralympic Team put in a strong effort at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, earning 21 total medals and five golds, and again the leadership of Canada’s Paralympians shone through.

From the para-sport community, Stephanie Dixon, Chef de Mission for Canada’s 2020 Paralympic Team is featured in this SIRC article: Performing in a Pandemic: The Resilience and Leadership of Canadian Athletes.

September

Para athlete passing a ball during a wheelchair basketball gameCanada’s inaugural Concussion Awareness Week took place September 26 – October, 2021. To help the week gain momentum across Canada, SIRC published a concussion themed SIRCuit that same week. These were five articles diving into the latest advances of concussion safety in Canadian sport. The article that’s resonated the most has been Concussion in Para athletes: One size doesn’t fit all, featuring Dr. Jamie Kissick who speaks to the gaps in para-sport concussion research as well as the work that’s being done to address it.

October

The 15th annual Sport Canada Research Initiative (SCRI) Conference brought together more than 1,000 stakeholders in Canadian sport virtually to hear from Canada’s leaders and researchers on the latest research and innovations in Canadian sport.

All the key sessions are available on SIRC’s YouTube page, including a panel titled Truth and recognition: what this means for sport leaders.

November

To help support and advance gender equity in Canadian sport, SIRC partnered with Canadian Women & Sport to create a series of webinars titled Engaging Girls and Women in Sport Mini Series. Part 3 of the series – Engaging Black Community Coaches – takes place in Feb. 2022!

December

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, mothers continue to be put under pressure. Following the Mom’s Got Game campaign in the spring, SIRC published another new article focused on supporting moms in December, titled “Playing for team motherhood”: Returning to team sport after childbirth. Stay tuned for more content to support moms in the spring of 2022!

Thank you to everyone who collaborated, partnered, and contributed to SIRC in 2021! And a special shout-out to SIRC’s readers, viewers, and participants. Your participation and support are crucial to SIRC’s network and the knowledge-to-action process. We’re excited to welcome you back to SIRC’s channels in 2022!

Sport organizations were challenged to adapt their programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering unique opportunities for program evaluation. While organizations that paused their programs had a chance to step back and formulate new evaluation questions, organizations that changed their programming reported an increased value of evaluation due to shifts in program goals or delivery.

Findings from the COVID-19 Disability Survey showed the needs of over 50% of respondents weren’t being met in areas such as food, housing, emotional counselling, transportation and more. As the world continues to reopen, it’s critical that that the voices and lived experiences of persons with disabilities inform decision-making processes.

Earlier this year, SIRC launched Community Activation Grants to help communities across Canada recover from COVID-19 through Safe Sport opportunities. Discover how sport organizations from coast to coast are using the grants to activate Safe Sport and concussion awareness initiatives in their communities in the SIRCuit.

“Engaging (athletes) and treating them as the important stakeholders that they are will not only be good for the athletes but also good for the viability and the long-term longevity of sport.” Beckie Scott, 2002 Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing and a stalwart in the international anti-doping movement, reflects on the value of having athletes engaged in decision-making in a special edition of the SIRCuit.

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games are in the books, with the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games (Beijing) and Commonwealth Games (Birmingham) just around the corner. Our 128 Canadian Paralympians competed in Tokyo, bringing home 21 medals. Canada’s team joined 4,275 high performance Para sport athletes from 62 countries for 12 days of competition in 22 Paralympic sports.

Despite the unprecedented challenge of hosting these Games during a global pandemic, the Tokyo Paralympic Games were hailed as a success. However, many Paralympic athletes experienced uncertainty about their participation at the Games. If these Games hadn’t been controversial enough, some Paralympic athletes weren’t classified yet as they boarded their flights to Tokyo.

Classification is mandatory for an athlete to compete in Para sport competition. Classification informs athlete preparation and development and has a material impact on competitive success. It determines which athletes are eligible to compete in a sport and how athletes are grouped together for competition.

This blog describes the classification process and explains how the COVID‑19 pandemic disrupted classification for Para sport competition. It also discusses how the pandemic exposed and worsened existing constraints in the classification process, limiting equitable access to Para sport classification and competition. Finally, it highlights opportunities to do classification differently, during and in a post-pandemic world, with the promise of improving access to classification and enhancing Para sport participation globally.

Classification: Confusing, expensive and essential

Josh Karanja compete in the Men's 1500m - T11 Heat at the Olympic Stadium during the Rio 2016 Paralympic GamesClassification is a system of athlete evaluation used to minimize the effects of diverse impairments on sporting performance and the outcomes of competition (Tweedy & Vanlandewijck, 2011). It’s intended to “level the playing field” for Para athletes and ensure that success on the field of play results from an athlete’s skill, fitness, tactical ability and mental preparedness

To clarify, athletes are classified not by physical impairment, but by that impairment’s effect on sporting performance. An athlete’s classification is sport-specific, determines where they ‘fit’ in their sport, and who the competition will be. Though implemented by each International Sport Federation (IF), all sport classification processes must comply with the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Classification Code and be conducted under the auspices of the IPC.

The process isn’t always straightforward. While protocols for classification vary between sports, presently an athlete must physically appear before a classification panel. The panel consists of highly trained, sport-specific Classifiers, who conduct standardized physical and technical tests to determine an athlete’s classification. If the panel deems an athlete eligible, the panel assigns that athlete a sport-specific, alpha-numeric classification category. For example, in Para athletics, a T54 classification represents a track athlete who uses a wheelchair, has full function of their trunk and arms, with moderately-highly impaired leg function or has absent legs. Athletes may need to be re-classified at multiple points throughout their career.

Since 2014, the IPC hasn’t allowed athlete classification to take place at the Paralympic Games or other major Games including the Commonwealth Games. The IPC’s zero in-Games classification policy ensures that all athletes are appropriately classified pre-competition, ensuring the credibility of the competition and number of participants for each event. Pre-competition classification avoids spending resources necessary to bring an unclassified athlete to competition, and the possible disappointment for the athlete and their entourage.

However, in the lead-up to Tokyo, the COVID‑19 pandemic forced the cancellation of countless sporting events and shut down international travel, both requirements for many athletes to access classification. In response, the IPC suspended its longstanding in-Games zero-classification policy and allowed athletes (in 10 of the 22 sports on the competition schedule for Tokyo) to be classified at the Games.

Classification during the COVID‑19 pandemic

Opening ceremony at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.Current circumstances and the foreseeable future suggest a grim forecast for global travel. In fact, in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020, a number of small island nations withdrew from attending the Games due to pandemic-related concerns. Such concerns include the gamble of spending already limited resources to send yet-to-be-classified Para athletes to the Games without guarantees that these athletes would receive the desired classification necessary to participate.

Sport administrators around the globe face questions around how to host local, regional and national events. These events have historically been locations to train sport classifiers and for athletes to be classified. In Para sport circles, there’s much discussion and valid concern that access to classification will be very limited for the immediate future. This reality will have the most impact on athletes who didn’t qualify for Tokyo, who compete in sports other than those on Tokyo’s agenda (such as lawn bowls and 3‑on‑3 wheelchair basketball), and athletes from developing nations.

If athletes weren’t classified in Tokyo, then where and how? Two large-scale sporting events for Para athletes will happen in 2022: the Beijing Winter Paralympic Games and the XXII Commonwealth Games.

The global pandemic has forced the sporting world to think critically, cleverly and creatively. In response to the historic challenge of athlete classification and the current state of inequitable access to classification, now is the time to consider how to do classification differently.

Doing classification differently?

In 2020, Western University partnered with Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) on an ongoing research project in the Commonwealth region of the Caribbean and the Americas. Its goal is to identify factors that drive inclusion in Para sport and to develop a high-performance pathway for Para athletes in the region. Preliminary findings show that access to athlete classification currently limits both Para sport participation and a sustainable high-performance pathway.

Given the uncertainty of international travel and future sporting events, access to athlete classification hinders Para sport participation more than ever before. To this end, Western University has launched a pilot project to examine ways to do classification differently: rigorously, effectively and accessibly.

Still in its early stages, the project involves collaborations with International Technical and Medical Classifiers to develop and evaluate hybridized frameworks to deliver classification, including elements of virtual classification. The aim is to consider approaches requiring fewer resources and creating greater levels of inclusion and accessibility to Para sport participation.

The pilot project presently focuses on alternative processes to provisionally classify athletes in the 8 Para sports on the schedule for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Trials of virtual athlete classification in Para table tennis, Para lawn bowls and Para cycling are underway. If the athlete is eligible, sport-specific International Classifiers will give the athlete a provisional classification. At the first opportunity, in-person confirmation of the provisional classification will be completed.

Classification and resource dependency

Provisional classification as an alternative process isn’t new. Research suggests that a number of sports have used ad hoc provisional classification, without formalized processes and rigorous empirical evaluation. Due to the pandemic, many Para athletes require classification or confirmation of an existing classification. This project presents an important opportunity to consider and evaluate how the process by which an athlete obtains classification might be done differently.

If Para sport is to realize the IPC’s vision to “Make for an inclusive world through Para sport,” stakeholders must embrace more equitable, inclusive processes around classification, for the global Para sport community. Accessing classification creatively and differently holds promise to drive Para sport participation and support high performance development in countries large and small, developing and developed, and to enhance equity in the Para sport movement.

With 1000 participants and thousands more spectators expected to attend, Swimming Canada had the biggest Olympic and Paralympic Trials in its history scheduled for April 2020—until COVID-19 forced it to be postponed. Fortunately, and with the help of a 35-page safety plan, a scaled-down event was held during spring 2021 to determine athletes for Olympic and Paralympic teams. Read about Swimming Canada’s learnings and insights on preparing for this national event amidst a global pandemic.